A community of change

Here is the fifth part of my course preparing people for cross-cultural mission. (Here are parts one, two, three and four.)

Discipleship is a community project. God has given us the Christian community so we can challenge and comfort one another. We are to speak the truth in love to one another, to ‘gospel’ one another. The writer of Hebrews says: ‘See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’ (Hebrews 3:11-13) Day by day you will need one another to remind you of these truths so that your hearts do not become hardened.

These four liberating truths about God (‘the Four Gs’) are a great resource as you encourage one another. These four truths are a great way of ‘speaking the truth in love’ to one another (Ephesians 4:15). This is how we can help one another fight sin.

They are also a great diagnostic kit. When you face temptation or fall into sin, ask yourself, ‘Which of these truths am I failing to embrace?’

1. God is great – so we don’t have to be in control

2. God is glorious – so we don’t have to fear others

3. God is good – so we don’t have to look elsewhere

4. God is gracious – so we don’t have to prove ourselves

Proclaiming good news

These four truths offer an alternative to legalism.

People often try to change behaviour without looking at the heart. They provide a set of rules by which people should live. Here is Paul view on that:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Living by a set of rules for behaviour does not work, says Paul. Such as approach to change can look very impressive, but it lacks any power to restrain the sinful desires of our hearts.

On a good day a behaviour-based approach will make us proud and self-righteous. Our confidence will be in our outward respectability. We need to repent of our ‘righteousness’ if this has become a source of false confidence or a substitute for true heart change. On a bad day a behaviour-based approach will leave you despondent and confused. The power of sin is supposed to be broken, but it does not seem to broken it my life!

These four liberating truths about God good news. They bring about gospel change.

  • If I meet someone who is worried about life or manipulative, then I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to be in control because God is in control.’
  • If I meet someone who is enslaved by other people’s opinions, who fears rejection or craves approval, then I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to fear others because God is glorious and he smiles upon you.’
  • If I meet someone who enslaved by the pursuit of wealth or pleasure or sex, I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to look elsewhere because God is good and to know him is true joy.’
  • If I meet someone who is desperate to prove themselves or make it in life or looks down on others, I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to prove yourself because God is gracious and Christ has done it all.’

We are not simply telling one another off. That is legalism and it kills. The ‘four Gs’ enable to us to speak good news to another.

Legalism says: You should not do that.
The gospel says: You need not do that –

because God is always bigger and better than sin.

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Can I change?

The following is an adapted response to someone who asked whether I thought they could change. I’ve edited my response to remove any personal references including any allusions to the nature of the issue.

I do think you can change. I can’t guarantee that. But change is always possible through the cross, the word and the Holy Spirit.

I would encourage you to explore with someone the underlying reasons for your behaviour. Think of your behaviour as a symptom and then explore the cause. Your behaviour will have met some desire, some ‘need’. Then you can explore how the gospel more fully and more truly meets that desire. That in itself will not bring change, but it will highlight where the battle is truly to be fought. You will then need someone who holds you accountable and encourages in that fight, who speaks the truth of the gospel to you.

You say that you are not an awful person. I am sure it is true that you are no more awful than other people, myself included. But this may be an opportunity for you to face up to how pervasive and extensive sin is in your life (as it is in the life of anyone). Remember that even our righteous acts are often motivated by sinful and selfish reasons (the desire to prove ourselves, the fear of others, the need to be in control and so on). Don’t just look at the bad things you have done; look at the good things you have done for bad reasons. That won’t be fun. But it will lead to a greater appreciation of grace and appreciating grace is the engine of change. It may also help you identify some of the underlying reasons for your behaviour (you may find that what led to your behaviour was also what motivated your good works). You may find yourself in a place where you have nothing to offer and depend entirely on God’s grace – and that is a good place to be and the only honest place to be!

I would suggest your primary responsibility is twofold. First, to guard your own heart (Proverbs 4:23) – both to explore the underlying issues, but also to guard against bitterness and resentment. Work hard at finding your joy in Christ. Read the Scriptures every day, remind yourself of the gospel, pray for the Holy Spirit’s work – all until you feel your heart moved each day with love, fear, joy, hope, faith, conviction, confession, wonder and so on. Do this day by day – one day’s neglect will be a step towards a hardening of your heart (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Second, serve other people. Put their needs before your own; put their emotional needs before your own. This will be a tough call for you. But it is the right thing to do and I suspect will also be good for you. Serving others takes us out of ourselves and puts us in the path of christlike living.

Thursday Review: Michael Emlet on cross talk

A review of Michael R. Emlet, CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, New Growth Press, 2009.

Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Rick tell you his wife is divorcing him after 22 years of marriage. How do you bring the words of Scripture to Rick? How do you counsel him with the word? CrossTalk is an attempt to answer this question. It’s a book on the use of Scripture in pastoral counselling.

It opens with a chapter outlining a number of scenarios to highlight both the challenges in applying Scripture to life and some of our preconceptions about how this should be done. The Bible is not, says Emlet, primarily a book of do’s and don’ts, nor a book of timeless principles for the problems of life, nor a casebook of characters to imitate or avoid, nor a system of doctrines. Instead the Bible is a story: the story of redemption with Christ as the centre. This means we need to look back to where we have come from and forward to where we are going, all the time remembering that this is God’s story, not ours.

To apply the Bible life, however, requires not only reading the Bible as a story, but being able to read people. Strikingly here Emlet’s approach parallels that of his approach to the Bible. He’s moving us away from proof-texting to seeing the Bible as an integrated narrative. In the same way he moves us away from trying to understand people through disconnected words or actions. Instead he proposes that we look for the “narrative skeleton” running through the person’s life. ‘In this sense, everyone has a story. Not simply a story to tell but a story (or stories) to live, a plotline that is going somewhere.’ (66) Emlet suggests using basic worldview questions (Where are we? Who are we? What’s wrong? What’s the remedy?, 69) to plot a person’s story in a way that parallels the Bible plotline of creation, fall and redemption. This allows us to ‘answer the fundamental questions of life with the biblical story’ (71).

Emlet suggests that we should view people in the categories of saints, sufferers and sinners (all of which will simultaneously be a reality for most people). He suggests that it is important to highlight these particular aspects of our identity as believers because “they describe our experience before Jesus returns to consummate his kingdom. How we live in our ‘roles’ as saints, sufferers, and sinners reveals how aligned we really are with God’s Word.” (74) (I’ve included below the main questions Emlet suggests for analysing people in this way.) “In ministry we are reading two ‘texts’ simultaneously, the story of Scripture and the story of the person we serve. In ministry we must always have one eye on the biblical text and one eye on the individual. Or better, our gaze constantly shifts between the two.” (90) Chapters 8-10 explore these principles through an extended case study.

In the final chapter Emlet emphasizes that the use of Scripture is a process, not a one-time event. Personal ministry is a dialogue, and that conversation occurs over time. He concludes by reminding us of the need to immerse ourselves in the word and rely on the Spirit rather than trusting a methodology. ‘The more we immerse ourselves in Scripture and the more self-conscious we are in our approach to people, the more natural and spontaneous these connections will be’. (173) ‘Real-life ministry requires wise creativity and Spirit-dependent flexibility, not slavish adherence to a set of rules’. (174)

If these ideas do not strike you as new then you may not gain much from reading CrossTalk. But if they are then CrossTalk would be a great place to start, to start learning how to use Scripture rightly in pastoring one another.

One final comment: There are a couple of pages on the role of the community in pastoral care (60-61, 175), but they are very brief and it would have been good to see this developed more.

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Thursday Review: Ed Welch on fear

A review of
Edward T. Welch, Running Scared: Fear, Worry and the God of Rest,
New Growth Press, 2008 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US
Edward T. Welch, When I Am Afraid: A Step-By-Step Guide Away from Fear And Anxiety, Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2010 purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

When I finished reading Ed Welch’s previous book, When People Are Big and God Is Small purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, I immediately started reading it a second time. So I approached Welch’s new book, Running Scared, with great anticipation. I was not disappointed. The focus of When People Are Big was the fear of man. Running Scared looks at fear and worry in general. Welch is a faculty member and counsellor with the Christian Counselling and Education Foundation (CCEF). Running Scared combines a model of how to apply theology to life with a light and engaging writing style.

We all have fears, from general anxieties to life-dominating phobias. Some fear is healthy (making one drive safely or treat strange dogs with caution), but we do not want to be overcome by fear. Free societies may resolve the fear of oppression, but increase the fear of personal failure.

Running Scared does not tightly define when fear becomes sin, though Welch does warn us to ‘worry about worry’ because worry is inward-focused, self-reliant and can be life-dominating. Instead Running Scared is a pastoral response, an invitation to turn from fear to trust in God.

Welch begins by encouraging us to listen to our fear. Fear says, “I am vulnerable.” In other words, fear wants to be in control. But the reality is we are dependent so fear is an opportunity to trust God. Fear says, “I need (and I might not get).” If we want comfort, we will fear pain. If we want approval, we will fear criticism. If we want money, we will fear need. “Worry reveals our allegiances. Fear and worry are not mere emotions; they are expressions of what we hold dear.” (161)

The Bible’s most frequent command is, “Do not be afraid.” Welch takes the provision of manna as a paradigm of God’s deliverance. But God provides on a day-by-day basis so we learn to trust him. Sometimes God delivers at the eleventh hour, encouraging us to trust him. Sometimes he allows the things we fear to happen, but then works a bigger deliverance through it. He uses adversity to replace the affections that underlie our fears with truer and better affections for God. The bridge could collapse. The spouse could be unfaithful. But God will give grace so we can accomplish his kingdom purposes

After providing a framework for understanding our fears, Welch explores three common specific worries: worries about money, the fear of man and the fear of death.

The section on the fear of man reprises some of the concepts in When People Are Big. “Whatever you think you need will control you. If you need something from other people – love, acceptance, approval – they hold the key to something very valuable to you. You will live in fear that they might not deliver.” (173-174) The problem is we move from desire to demand and then re-label “demand” as “need”. “Beneath our use of the word need are the things we treasure, even worship.” (184) When I am called concerned for God’s reputation other people’s attitudes will matter to me, but not control me. “Jesus shows us that to be truly human means that our desire to love others out-distances our desire to be loved ourselves.” (179)

Running Scared is more than a theory or approach. It not only tells you what you ought to do; the very act of reading will help counter your worry as the truth is presented in a variety of engaging ways. It is somewhat repetitive if read straight through (especially the final nine chapters), but then it is designed as thirty meditations to be read over a month. Each chapter ends with “a personal response” which points to application, but does so through Welch’s own struggles and questions.

When I Am Afraid is an accompanying workbook on fear with questions for personal application. It tracks the material in Running Scared, but there is enough prose summarizing what is said in Running Scared for When I Am Afraid to stand alone. If you are pastor wanting to help a non-reader struggling with fear then I suggest you use When I Am Afraid with them while you read Running Scared. The questions in When I Am Afraid helpfully reveal our fears and how the gospel speaks specifically to those fears. They are, however, quite personal so I suspect they would only work in a group setting in which the group is already intimate with one another.

In summary: two great resources that would benefit anyone as well as offering hope to those struggling with life-dominating fears.

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The content of pastoral care: the gospel word

We help one another change and overcome pastoral problems:

  • by ‘speaking the truth in love’ (15)
  • by speaking ‘the truth that is in Jesus’ (21)
  • as we ‘put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour’ (25)
  • as we ‘do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.’ (29)

We pastor one another through speaking the truth because our underlying issue is the ‘deceitful desires’ of our hearts (22; see also Mark 7:20-23 and Romans 1:18-25). Sin promises satisfaction, meaning, identity, but it deceives. In reality it enslaves and destroys. So we need to speak the truth to one another, calling on one another to repent of our idolatrous desires and turn in faith to the truth that is in Jesus.

According to the Bible, the source of all human behaviour and emotions is the heart. The ‘heart’ in the Bible is shorthand for our thinking and desires. All our actions flow from the heart. Jesus says: ‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.’ (Luke 6:43-45)

There is a twofold problem in the heart: what we think and what we desire or worship:

  • we choose to worship other gods instead of God
  • we choose to trust other interpretations instead of God’s word

1. We choose to worship other gods instead of God = idolatry. The New Testament term for idolatry is ‘the lusts of the flesh’ or ‘the sinful desires of the hearts’. We want, desire, treasure, worship something more than God. It may be a desire for a good thing that has grown so it matters more to us than God. To desire to be married, for example, is to desire a good thing. But if that desire becomes bigger than my desire for God then my singleness may make me bitter. Anger, frustration, bitterness, sulking, jealousy and malice are all signs that are idolatrous desires are being threatened or thwarted.

  • The answer to worshipping other gods instead of God is to turn back to God in repentance.

2. We choose to trust other interpretations instead of God’s word. Problems for Christians do not often arise because of disbelief in a confessional or theoretical sense (though this may be case). More often they arise from functional or practical disbelief. Asked if I belief in justification by faith, I may reply that I do (confessional faith), but still feel the need to prove myself (functional disbelief). I may affirm that God is sovereign (confessional faith), but still get anxious when I cannot control my life (functional disbelief). Indeed, sanctification can be viewed as the progressive narrowing of the gap between confessional faith and functional faith.

  • The answer to not trusting God is to turn back to God in faith.

And so we constantly call one another to faith and repentance. We extol Christ to one another so he is the one who worship and he is the one we trust.

The key thing is to speak good news to people, not just ‘tell them off’. We don’t simply say, ‘You should not do that.’ That’s legalism. It kills. We say, ‘You need not do that because Jesus is bigger and better.’ That’s gospel. Good news. It brings life.

Adapted from You Can Change
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The context of pastoral care: the gospel community

Churches often have a professional approach to pastoral care – it’s something done by a pastor or counsellor. But in Ephesians 4 Paul tells the whole Christian community in Ephesus to speak the truth to one another in love (15). The context of change is the gospel community (1-16) and the content is the gospel word (17-25).

God has given us the Christian community with all its differences and giftings as the context for change and growth. Paul says Christ ‘makes the whole body fit together perfectly’ (16 nlt).

  • You need to help others change.
  • You need to let others help you change.

So gospel communities need a culture in which we challenge, comfort, console, exhort and rebuke one another in the context of ordinary life. We need a culture in which it is normal to comfort and rebuke one another. We can do this so rarely that it creates a sense of crisis. We need to think of church discipline not simply as a final act of excommunication, but as a lifestyle of discipleship.

If I’m moaning, I need someone to challenge me to find joy in Christ. If I’m anxious, I need someone to exhort me to trust in my heavenly Father’s care. If I’m ashamed, I need someone to comfort me with the grace of God. It might be a leader; it might be a new Christian. It might be in a scheduled meeting; it might be as we tend someone’s garden together. We need daily exhortation: ‘See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’ (Hebrews 3:12-13) And we need it from people who see us in the daily grind of life, not just when we are on our best behaviour.
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Porn Statistics

In my forthcoming book, Captured By a Better Vision: Living Pom-Free purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US, I describe the spread of pomography as an epidemic. Here are some stats that back up this claim …

  • Every second, 28,258 Internet users are viewing pomography and $3,075.64 is being spent on pomography
  • The pomography industry is larger than the revenues of the top technology companies combined: Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix and EarthLink
  • There are 4.2 million pomographic websites, which is 12% of all the websites on the internet
  • Every day there are 68 million (25% of the total) search engine requests for pomographic terms
  • 42.7% of internet users view pom
  • The average age of first exposure to pomography is 11 years old and 80% of 15-17 year olds have had multiple hard-cor e exposure
  • The 35-49 age group is the largest consumer of internet pomography
  • 47% of Christians say that pomography is a major problem in the home
  • 17% of women struggle with pomography addiction and 70% of women keep their cyber activities secret
  • The USA produces 89% of all pomographic web pages (Germany are the next biggest producer, producing 4% of all pomographic web pages)

Captured by a Better Vision aims to offer hope for people struggling with pom and guidance for those trying to help them. It is published by IVP  in the UK on 19 March 2010. It will be published in the US by InterVaristy Press.

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